By Lesley Laws - Museum Volunteer

Parentalia was a nine-day festival of rites and rituals celebrating deceased family ancestors, and later developed to include all the dead (di Manes). Religion and festivals were an important part of both Roman state and family life. Rites and rituals were meticulously observed and changed very little over time as change was seen as disrespectful and could provoke anger from gods or ancestors. Every Roman home had a sacred space - a shrine dedicated to the household gods and the Lares (spirits of the ancestors). Statuettes representing family spirits and death masks of distinguished ancestors were displayed to remind the current generation to live up to the ideals of their ancestors.


Selection of copper alloy statuettes from Vindolanda possibly used in Lararium or household shrine on the site.  

Paternalia was essentially a family festival held during February. It began in the Ids of February (13th February) and ended on the 21st. The importance of family to the Roman state was expressed by public ceremonies held on the opening day when a Vestal conducted a rite of collective dies parental (ancestral days). During the nine days of the festival all temples were closed, no weddings took place, and magistrates wore no insignia indicating that no official business was conducted.

Parentalia ended on February 21st with the rite of Feralia. Families gathered at the ancestral tombs which were located outside the city boundary bringing offerings of grain, salt, bread soaked in wine and wreaths and violets were scattered. Archaeological evidence from Pompeii suggests that many tombs had seating areas in garden settings where families could eat with deceased ancestors. By feasting with their dead relatives, the family were remembering and honouring their ancestors, ensuring that the ancestors watched over the family and aided them.

The rites and rituals were intended to keep the dead away from the living. After a funeral, the family ritually cleansed themselves and their home. Ovid, the first century BCE poet, warns never to forget the ancestors and describes the consequences of forgetting the dead. In one time of war Paternalia was not honoured and the result was " Our ancestors left their tombs in night's silent and wailed. The city streets and broad grassland howl, they say, with a hollow throng of shapeless souls". Parentalia was not forgotten again!

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.


Ancient Rome; Thomas R. Martin

Fast; Ovid